Business-like, isn't he?


 

 



MS Office 95: This Suite smells of success

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, October 1995

Windows 95 is nice, but while it does a pretty good job of running the current generation of applications, it really needs new applications to take advantage of all its improvements. It really shouldn't come as much of a surprise, therefore, that Microsoft is revamping virtually its entire product line to run as native, Win95 applications.

The flagship of Microsoft's armada is the MS Office suite-- it should come as no surprise that MS Office 95 was released on August 24th-- the same day as Windows 95 itself-- might as well give everyone in those long lineups something else to buy! (well-- nearly ready. The update to Access, the database included in the Office Professional package, isn't quite out of beta-testing yet. Instead, purchasers of the Pro package get the Access 2.0, with a coupon for a free upgrade when the Win95 version is ready).

In the past few years, software Suites have become big business-- accounting for a majority of sales of word processors and spreadsheets, for example. And despite competition from Lotus SmartSuite and Novell (formerly Word Perfect) Perfect Office, MS Office has garnered over 70% of the suite sales. Where in the former DOS world, Microsoft seemed to always have the also-ran contender in word processor and spreadsheet sales, the combination of Windows and suites has pushed them into a comfortable sales lead.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WINDOWS 95

Many of the improvements that Office-95 users will like best aren't really improvements to Office-- they are common to any programs designed for Win95. Users quickly learn to enjoy long file names, for example-- something that Mac-users have appreciated for a decade. No more Q3-95BUD.DOC to identify that "3rd Quarter 1995 Budget" word processing file. (But Win95 automatically creates a standard DOS 8+3 file name as well, so the file can be used on computers or with software that's not up to long filenames yet).

All Win95 applications must be written as 32-bit software, rather than the 16-bit versions standard with Windows 3.x. This doesn't automatically make them run faster. The 32-bit Windows NT versions of MS Word and Excel, for example, ran slower than their 16-bit equivalents, because they left out the highly-optimized programming code of the older versions in order to be compatible with NT on a wide range of CPUs.

The newer Win95 versions of these programs, however, do feel snappier than the last generation. And, as 32-bit programs, Windows 95 will run them in separate multitasked sessions-- making them harder to crash by some other misbehaving program. These are big programs, however, and while they'll run (at least one at a time) on 8 meg machines, you might want to consider upgrading to 16 megs if you're going to run them regularly, especially if you need to run several at once.

Win95 allows new programs to be multi-threaded-- to run separate processes in the background to improve performance. The Office applications don't make much use of multithreading, however, adding it only to printing.

A nice Win95 feature that may take getting used to is 'Scraps'-- you can now highlight part of a document, and drag it to the desktop, where the scrap can sit and wait for you to drag it into a different document or even a different application. Use it, for instance, to drag an address from a letter, and drop it into a contact list... but like the other features, only usable with Win95-compatible applications, like all of Office 95. Similarly, right-clicking on the desktop gets you the standard Win95 popup menu-- choose New to simply create a new Word or Excel or Powerpoint document. In fact, as with Win95 in general, right-mouse clicking is implimented throughout Office 95.

Office 95 applications also all make use of Win 95's Exchange client-- you can send e-mail from any of them, or use it to share information across a network. You can also use Word to edit your Exchange e-mail. Help items in all the applications can automatically connect you to the correct forum on the Microsoft Network (if you have registered for an account!)
 

WORKING TOGETHER

Suites have been marketed as a bargain-- a way to get three or four applications for the price of two. Office continues in this tradition, as before, bundling MS Word word processor, Excel spreadsheet, and Powerpoint presentation graphics (plus the Access database in the Pro version). Schedule Plus, a group scheduler and personal information manager that debuted in Windows for Workgroups has been moved from the core Windows package into Office. (WFWG users can get a free upgrade of Schedule + from Microsoft).

As well, suite marketing has claimed that purchasers would find it easier working with a collection of applications that were sported the same interface. Unfortunately, the reality has not always lived up to this-- the applications found in suites may have come in a single box, but have tended to leave more than a little to be desired in terms of working together.

Office 95 is better than previous versions in this way-- Microsoft's programmers worked on using as much common code for all of the applications: they share File Open and Save dialogue boxes, for example, enhancing Win95's standard dialogues with Previews of the selected filesand integrated search. While users of  Word 6.0 could run AutoCorrect, now this feature appears across the Office, as does a new help extension, the Answer Wizard. A nice touch is the vertical scrollbars-- you can now see what page number you're scrolling to. Common spell checking dictionaries, including user-customized dictionaries.

You can open these applications from Win95's Start Menu, but by default, you get the Microsoft Office Shortcut Bar, replacing the previous version's anemic Microsoft Office manager (MOM). The Shortcut Bar (sorry, no cute acronym) floats on the desktop, or can be anchored to an edge of the screen... and you can add any Win95 shortcut to it, by just dropping it onto the Shortcut Bar-- making it an easy way to access any of your favorite applications, whether its part of Office or not. You can have multiple Shortcut toolbars-- it's configurable enough that some users may find it preferable to Win95's Start Menu for most of their computing.

In addition, Office adds a new kind of document-- a Binder file. This lets you combine data from any of the Office apps, or other Office-compatible software into a single, notebook-like setting... as easily as dragging them in. You can number pages, or check spelling, as if this was a single file, regardless of the source of the data... a step in the direction of working with documents that fit your data, without having to start off with single applications. Because the Binder uses OLE 2, as you change to a page created in a different application, you don't open that application-- your tool bar and menus change to fit the data. (And OLE 2 works much more smoothly in Win95 than in previous versions-- but still demands a lot of ram).

Several years ago, Microsoft promised a single, Visual Basic-based macro language, that would be supported across its applications. While Excel has supported Visual Basic for Applications, Word and PowerPoint still lack this support. Word and Excel continue to use the same file formats with the previous versions, but PowerPoint and Access produce new, incompatible files.
 

WORKING SEPARATELY

The applications in Office95 benefit from being designed for Windows95, and to share the common features of Office. Otherwise, the actual feature-sets of the separate applications are not dramatically changed from the last generation. That's not a bad thing-- Word 6.0 and Excel 5.0 were both rich with features that many users still haven't had a chance to fully get used to.

All applications in the suite now sport a '7.0' version number-- even though in some cases, this means jumping a few numbers (Excel 5.0 to 7.0, Access 2.0 to 7.0-- Word skipped in the previous generation, from 2.0 to 6.0... now it too, shares the 7.0 moniker).

Word 7, for example, builds on the previous version's Auto-features, sometimes feeling like it's become Auto-everything. As before, you can Auto-correct (now available in all the Office apps) so that when you type 'teh' you get 'the'. Now you also get auto-bullets. Starting a line with "--" gets you the default bullet symbol. Start with a number, and you get a formatted numbered list. Headers auto-format. A row of dashes becomes an instant border.

Pause in your typing, and your spelling can be checked... this seems to work more smoothly than a similar feature in the beta of Lotus's Word Pro that I recently looked at-- there, every word typed appeared as a mistake until you finished typing it by pressing the spacebar... a disconcerting changing of colour.

Auto-mania also comes to Excel. AutoCorrect, again. But also AutoComplete... like in Quicken or MS Money, start to type in a previously-appearing name in a cell, and it fills in the rest for you. Highlight a bunch of cells, and the total is automatically calculated, and displayed on the bottom of the screen.

New to Excel 7.0 is Data Mapping, a feature that premiered on Lotus's 1-2-3, release 5. Data in a spreadsheet can be translated into a colour-coded map, as easily as into a chart. A basic set of maps is included, with the promise of more from third-party suppliers (no neighborhood map of Vancouver, as yet).

Another steal from Lotus SmartSuite is tighter links between the spreadsheet and the database program, in this case, Excel and Access. Users will have to wait for Access 7.0 to see these in action, however.

I wasn't too impressed with the Windows for Workgroups version of Schedule, preferring Lotus's Organize as a simple personal information manager (PIM). I haven't seen anything in the Office95 Schedule + that changes that opinion... but if you don't currently use a PIM, it's worth a look; it is more fully-functional than the previous version. As well, it is well integrated into the rest of Office. For example, you can pull names and addresses out of Schedule + into a Word letter. Oh-- it also includes a Wizard to work with that Timex computer watch.

And I haven't looked at Powerpoint, Office's presentation graphics program-- I'm saving it until I can compare it, head to head, with Lotus's new, Win95 version of Freelance Graphics.

Like all of the current suites, Office 95 is a hefty program, that can demand a lot of ram and hard drive space. It can be installed in a minimal fashion, taking a 'mere' 27 megs, or can be set up to run off a CD-ROM drive (which still asks for 30 megs of hard drive space). Microsoft claims a typical installation will require about 55 megs of space-- a full install takes 89 megs. If you find yourself regularly opening Word and Excel at the same time, perhaps to drag a spreadsheet chart into a word processing document, you'll be best off with 16 megs of ram. If you get the CD version, you get the bonus of Microsoft Bookshelf on the disk-- a useful collection of reference tools (dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, desk encyclopedia, famous quotations, etc).

Home users and some small offices running Win95 may find their needs better served with one of the new generation of all-in-one programs, such as Microsoft Works-95, or the soon-to-be-released Claris Works 4.0.

Even though the biggest improvements users will find with this suite come from Windows 95 (like long file names) rather than from the core applications, at the moment, this is the product of choice for business users running Win95. Even when Lotus and Novell release their Win95 competitors, in a few months, this will remain the one to beat.
 
 



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan